"Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right!" -- Henry Ford
The words of American industrialist Henry Ford have become a guiding principle for UCI alumnus Oscar Gonzalez who received his Ph.D in Psychology and Social Behavior from UCI's School of Social Ecologyin 2011. Today, Oscar is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at the Universidad Metropolitana (UMET) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, studying the combat-related emotions and the psychosocial health of military personnel.
"To me, the above quote highlights the significance and power of the human psyche," he says. "Over my years of formal and informal education, I have come to see this idea described by Ford as the most overlooked and important notion of psychology bearing on human behavior and achievement. Hence, I often tell my students that in order to reach a goal, you need to see yourself achieving it."
Oscar's dream of pursuing a doctoral degree began for him during high school. "I was 17 years old when I 'enlisted' in the military and I went to "Boot Camp" during my summer break of 11th grade." By then, he knew that he wanted to be a "doctor", but was not sure 'of what'. He chose to join the Army as a 'Combat Medic' because in his words, "it was the most interesting job that was available" - and as part of a 'split training package' it allowed him to join the Army without missing school/college.
Oscar credits his formal military experience with enabling him to gain first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a soldier. "Military deployments, especially when combat-related, can heavily tax the body and the mind," he states. "War is chaotic, and getting veterans to candidly talk about war is hard. Having a military background, and knowing other veterans who cared about my work, facilitated my research - enabling me to be viewed as an 'insider', - someone they could trust and open up to, which allowed for rapidly establishing rapport with veterans participating in my research projects."
While an undergraduate student at the Universidad Metropolitana in Puerto Rico, Oscar traveled to California and completed a summer research experience (SURF) at UCI, under the direction of Dr. James McGaugh.Coming from a much smaller academic environment, Oscar's first impression was that his entire university would fit in the UCI library. "I was not afraid, but I was alone," he acknowledges. "And then came Dr. McGaugh. I was simply stunned by his humility given his fame. I remember that I once saw him on TV speaking about his research before I had the chance to meet him! He made me feel like I was part of a family."
Because of his experiences with SURF, Oscar returned for a 'second tour of research' the following summer. He attributes his time working with Dr. McGaugh as a critical component in helping him to better understand the complex relationship between human memory and psychological stress and trauma. "These factors became the backbone of my doctoral work and my current research interest," he notes.
In addition to his experiences with SURF, Oscar credits a host of synergistic activities with the UCI Graduate Division that helped fuel his passion for teaching. From the moment he arrived at UCI as a graduate student, he became active in campus life and served as a Graduate Student Representative on several diversity councils – and also became a Graduate Student Mentor in the SURF program that afforded him so many opportunities.
From the beginning of his graduate studies at UCI through to his doctoral candidacy, Oscar credits the faculty with support and encouragement. In addition to UCI's Professor McGaugh, Oscar acknowledges that his mentor UCI Professor Raymond W. Novaco, who is credited with coining the term "Anger Management" was a mentor in every sense of the word.
"From admission to graduation, I felt as if I were a true underdog, and yet Professor Novaco never doubted my abilities and stood by me," Oscar says. "He was more than my mentor and his support has been undoubtedly the most critical factor in my academic success and personal growth. He was not just a father figure symbolically; he often acted as one. He pushed me through hardship and helped me stand on my own. Professor Novaco's knowledge is only rivaled by his sense of culture, insight, and principles."
Oscar's life experiences – as an Army veteran, a neurobiology researcher in memory and learning, as well as his studies in human emotions and psychopathology, have all become a part of who Oscar Gonzalez is today. When asked what comes next, Oscar points out that he has goals that he is hoping to accomplish. The first is to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in psychology and other sciences, and the second is to continue to conduct research, especially in relation to stress, trauma, violence, and mental health.
While he may be thousands of miles away from UCI, Oscar still manages to find time to speak with undergraduates here on campus as well as with students he met while a Teaching Assistant. Technology including email and Facebook are two of the ways by which keeping in touch is made easy. "I really like being accessible to others and technology facilitates the ability to share my knowledge and experience. I owe so very much to my UCI friends and family - especially my mentor Dr. Raymond Novaco - and all the U.S. military service members, veterans, particularly my brother, a decorated war hero - they all helped me design and complete an award-winning doctoral dissertation. I am in great debt to them."